KABUL: US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said on Sunday he hoped the Taliban and Afghan government would strike a peace deal within five months — even as the militants inflict record high casualties on security forces.

Back in Kabul after a second round of regional meetings that are believed to have included the Taliban, Afghan-born Khalilzad said he remained “cautiously optimistic” for an end to the 17-year conflict.

The former US ambassador to Kabul has been spearheading American efforts to convince the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government. His appointment as US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation in September was soon followed by a meeting with the group’s representatives in Qatar.

But there are growing fears that any progress towards peace could be derailed by the April 20 presidential election, which is expected to be fiercely contested and marred by violence.

Taliban hold talks with Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar for three days

“I remain cautiously optimistic,” Khalilzad told Afghan media at a briefing. “I hope that the Taliban and other Afghans would use the [presidential] election as a deadline to achieve a peace agreement before then — that would be my hope.”

“The Taliban are saying that they don’t believe that they can succeed militarily... I think there’s an opportunity for reconciliation and peace,” he said.

“I am talking to all interested parties, all Afghan groups... The Afghan government wants peace,” the US envoy said.

The US embassy in Kabul sent a recording of Khalilzad’s remarks to foreign journalists based in Kabul, who had not been invited to attend the briefing.

Negotiations in Qatar

A Taliban leader and another individual close to the militants said on Sunday the insurgent group held three days of talks with Khalilzad in Qatar, where it has a political office.

The Taliban, who revealed details of the talks, said Khairullah Khairkhwah, the former Taliban governor of Herat, and Mohammed Fazl, a former Taliban military chief, attended the marathon negotiations.

A third individual with knowledge of the discussions said the Taliban pressed for a postponement of next year’s presidential elections and the establishment of an interim government under a neutral leadership. Abdul Sattar Sirat, an ethnic Tajik and Islamic scholar, was suggested as a candidate to lead an interim administration.

The individual, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Khalilzad wants to reach a settlement within six months, a timescale the Taliban said was too short. The US envoy also proposed a ceasefire, which the Taliban rejected, the individual said, adding that there was no agreement on the release of prisoners, opening the Taliban office or lifting a Taliban travel ban.

Khairkhwah and Fazl were among five senior Taliban members released from the US prison at Guantanamo Bay in 2014 in exchange for US Sgt Bowe Bergdahl. The five are now based in Qatar, and are seen as having enough stature to sell a peace deal to insurgents fighting on the front lines.

Khalilzad’s comments about a possible peace deal come as the Taliban step up attacks on Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces, which are suffering an unprecedented level of casualties.

The death toll among Afghan soldiers and police is nearing 30,000 since the start of 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani revealed this month — a figure far higher than anything previously acknowledged.

In a recent report, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction cited the Nato mission in Kabul as saying this summer’s toll had been worse than ever for Afghan forces.

Recent Taliban attacks on ethnic Hazara-dominated districts in the south-eastern province of Ghazni have left hundreds dead, forced thousands of families to flee their homes, and raised fears of sectarian violence. Most Hazaras are Shia, while the Taliban are Sunni and largely ethnic Pashtuns.

Khalilzad said he recognised the “complexity” of the conflict, but insisted: “I would like to make as much progress as possible as soon as possible.” His comments underscore an apparent increasing sense of urgency in the White House and among American diplomats for a deal to be done quickly.

The US administration now appears focused on reaching a political settlement with the Taliban, and has given in to a number of the group’s longstanding demands, beginning with the holding of direct talks. The Taliban have long refused US demands to negotiate with the Western-backed government in Kabul, which the insurgents view as a puppet regime.

Washington is facing competition from Moscow, which this month hosted an international gathering on Afghanistan that was attended by the Taliban.

Khalilzad called for the selection of negotiating teams to enable talks between the militants and Kabul to start.

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2018

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